Karen Armstrong on the Unknowingness of God

I recently heard Karen Armstrong, the writer on religion, in discussion on the radio (The Forum, BBC World Service, 12.07.09), where she told a story that’s in her new book, The Case For God, to illustrate the way that people should think about God.
She told the story as a positive illustration, however to me it said a lot about what is wrong with many concepts of God. It is about the fact that we can never know God.
Here’s the story (It’s an old one, from tenth century BC India).

Two Brahmin priests are having a form of competition between themselves to see which one can find a way to put into words something of the nature of Brahman – of God, the ultimate reality, the inner meaning of everything, the nature of being.
To do this they each in turn think up a difficult concept and ask an enigmatic question that the other has to answer.
The winner of the competition is the one who asks a question that reduces the other to silence. In that silence the Brahman is present. We are in the realisation of the impotence of speech – that the truth is beyond words.

Armstrong goes on to explain that our present notion of God is far too limited and literal – in fact she states that we shouldn’t even try to discuss whether God exists or God doesn’t exist, as our notion of existence is woefully limited.
This would be fine if people actually took this attitude to (what I think is) its logical conclusion, which is to put God beyond consideration and beyond the need for consideration. The result of this would be that God would be irrelevant (whether he exists or not). However, people don’t do that, and I suspect that Armstrong doesn’t mean them to either. To her, God exists, and you must engage in a ‘relationship’ with him – but you mustn’t ever try to grasp what he is. Discussion or analysis of God is out of bounds, but his existence is deemed to be beyond question (in several senses of the expression).

In the same programme Armstrong also had something to say about the modern way of thinking that allows science to seem to be at odds with religion.
She stated that when thinkers of the early modern period started using rationality and the scientific method to make sense of the world it was assumed that science may be able, at some point in the future, to allow us to understand God in some way after all.
Early modern thinkers such as Newton and Galileo were, she stated, deeply religious (with the inference being, I assume, that they were using science to more deeply appreciate and understand God’s work).
When science failed to reveal more about God there was a crisis in faith, as the scientific method was held up to be the supreme avenue for revealing all knowledge, yet it revealed nothing about the nature of the supreme being. As a result of this failure, in the late nineteenth century a degree of hostility towards religion took root. What people were getting wrong, according to Armstrong, was that they failed to realise that God was beyond scientific analysis. Those Brahmin were right all along. Science and religion operate in different non-overlapping areas of existence, their seeming incompatibility being a false dichotomy (The old dual magisteria concept of Stephen Jay Gould again).

Armstrong also argued that in the past religion wasn’t about thinking about things but was about doing things. In the modern world religion is over-intellectuallised and rationalised. Personally I would argue that if the concept of God isn’t an intellectual phenomenon, then I don’t know what it is. But then again, I obviously don’t know what it is, because it’s beyond analysis – as those Brahmin priests would happily tell me.

The problem is that by invoking this anti-analysis case, religion ring fences itself against criticism.
Imagine if the early rational and scientific thinkers had thought the same way. Imagine if they’d looked at the world and had declared that the whole thing was just too inexplicable to understand and too complicated to comprehend and that we should just leave it at that. (On this topic, anyone reading this who thinks that the world hasn’t benefited from scientific progress please leave a comment!)

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Filed under Philosophy, Religion/atheism

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